If the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers play each other on Sunday and nobody gives a sh*t, does the game make a sound? When a 2-5 disaster visits a 1-5 dumpster fire and nobody can be bothered to care, can you still hear the boos?
We're only seven weeks into the 2014 NFL season and the two metaphorical trees of the Vikings and Bucs seem to have already fallen in the forest. This was supposed to be a year of improvement and hope for both teams. The Vikings had a new coach to clean up the woeful defense, a promising new rookie quarterback, five starters returning on the offensive line, and the league's best running back still in his prime. The Bucs had a new coach of their own that has already proven himself in the league, a veteran free agent quarterback that lit it up last year, and enough pieces on both sides of the ball to make a lot of experts choose them as a dark horse playoff contender before the season.
And yet here we are with both teams looking undead before Halloween. Minnesota's new coach and quarterback are scrambling to learn on the job with the star running back exiled from the team and the offensive line in shambles. Tampa Bay has already benched Josh McCown and suffered two of the NFL season's most embarrassing blowouts through six games. (The only saving grace for the one-win Buccaneers? The NFC South has been so lousy this year that they're still only two games out of first place.)
You'll have to forgive me if my preview for this potential NFC Championship Game preview is a little hasty this week. While this article is posting on a Thursday morning I wrote all of it on Monday and Tuesday. By the time you read this I'll be in sunny Orlando, Florida taking a little family vacation. In fact, I'm most likely waiting in an interminable line to meet Mickey Mouse or one of the Disney princesses at this very moment! But hey, it beats working, and it sure as hell beats studying a lot of film on two of the worst teams in the league.
But we'll still cover a little film this week. The scapegoat in recent weeks for the Vikings has been Matt Kalil & The Turnstyles, which unfortunately isn't a 50's doo-wop cover band. The offensive linemen were scapegoats with good reason--they were an atrocity against Green Bay and Detroit. But they actually weren't that bad last week in Buffalo. And "not terrible" is a gigantic upgrade for that unit, especially considering the mid-game injuries suffered by John Sullivan and Vladimir Ducasse. So why did the offense still muster only 16 points even though the defense forced four Bills turnovers? Quite frankly, Teddy Bridgewater wasn't nearly consistent enough with his decisions and throws to make the offense run efficiently.
The play that ended the Vikings' first drive was a great example of where Bridgewater needs improvement. On 3rd and 5, Greg Jennings (lined up in the Y slot in trips left) beat his man with a double move and was wide open down the left sideline. Bridgewater saw Jennings but got happy feet and hesitated, giving the safety time to help over the top. Bridgewater underthrew the pass anyway and it fell incomplete.
The hesitation also meant that Bridgewater took a big shot at the end of his throw. So instead of a first down in Buffalo territory Bridgewater jogged to the sidelines with ribs that were probably a little sorer.
On Bridgewater's second interception of the day, he actually made a pretty nice throw. He had Adam Thielen in single coverage on a deep out route. Leodis McKelvin was well off the line of scrimmage playing soft coverage. Not a bad time to take a shot downfield--except that he stared down Thielen the whole time, allowing McKelvin to break on the ball and make the pick.
He didn't even glance elsewhere after the play action. One positive to take from Bridgewater's early mistakes is that they're correctable and coachable. His fundamentals are generally solid, he has proven he can make most of the throws (including a few gems last Sunday), and his skinny knees haven't exploded after taking all the sacks in his first three starts.
(Note: Before we go any further, if you are one of the hoopleheads that's suggesting that we're already in Christian Ponder territory with Teddy, stop reading now. I'm serious. In fact, I'm surprised you can even read in the first place. The guy is three games into his NFL career. We gave Ponder three years. You can make critiques of Bridgewater's individual mistakes thus far. But we're a long, long way from making sweeping generalizations of how his career is going to turn out.)
Of course Sunday marks the first time we'll see our old pal Leslie Frazier in his new gig as Bucs defensive coordinator. But with the current state of these two teams, the Vikings seeing Frazier again is like a high school reunion where everyone got fat and nobody did anything with their lives. I was going to break down some of the Bucs film showing how bad they've been but I didn't have enough time this week and I didn't want you throw up and/or drool on your laptop or mobile device.
This matchup is really hard to get excited about. In fact, the only thing I'm really excited about is that I'll actually be at the ol' Pirate Ship to watch it all unfold in person. Since Orlando is only about 80 miles from Tampa, we decided to make Raymond James Stadium our last stop on the trip. We'll be meeting up with my old roommate (a huge Bucs fan also making the trip down from the Twin Cities with his girlfriend), my brother-in-law, and the one and only KJ Segall. Yes, I'm finally going to meet our beloved pants-less Daily Norseman co-writer in person for the first time. I'm not sure if I should be more worried about the outcome of the game itself or waking up Hangover-style in an unfamiliar location in the greater Tampa area. Either way it should be quite a treat!
And yes, the game itself does worry me more than it should. The Vikings have made it pretty clear that they aren't going anywhere in 2014, but dammit I really want to see a win. Minnesota has lost six games in a row to the Buccaneers; I attended the last two losses with my aforementioned roommate at the Metrodome. That was fun. The first was in Week 2 of the 2011 season, where we had the privilege of watching Donovan McNabb and the Vikings squander a 17-point halftime lead. Next was Week 8 of the 2012 season--a Thursday night blowout where Doug Martin ran roughshod over the Vikings and Josh Freeman did well enough to sucker the Vikings into signing him the following season. I'd say the Vikings are overdue for getting a little payback on the Bucs. They owe us.
Although I haven't exactly spent most of this article singing the praises of the Vikings, there are some positives to look to. The defense has been keeping them in games despite the offense's best efforts to the contrary. Anthony Barr, Destroyer of Souls and Screen Passes, is getting better each week. He's still getting beat on crossing routes way too often; I think he'll be an absolute terror as soon as he learns to anticipate the offense instead of reacting to it. As I mentioned earlier, the battered offensive line wasn't terrible against Buffalo's formidable defense last week. Tampa Bay's defense has a lot more holes. Bridgewater will keep on learning and ironing out his mistakes. Much like Teddy, Jerick McKinnon has amazing abilities that you can't coach and flaws that you can, which means he should only get better as well. McKinnon still needs a lot of work in pass blocking but just look at this amazing 29-yard scamper against the league's best run defense:
The playoffs are a pipe dream in Minnesota, but victory on Sunday is very attainable. If the team can clean up mistakes and keep forcing their opponents into some, the Vikings might avoid going oh-fer in October.
And if I'm wrong, at least barely anybody will be around to hear our tree fall to the ground in the lonely forest of the NFL basement. TIMMMBEEERRRRRRRR!!
Prediction: Vikings 23, Buccaneers 21
And now for the rest of my Week 8 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
BRONCOS over Chargers
Yes, San Diego always gives Denver a tough time. But picking against Peyton Manning at home on national TV is like picking against the house at a casino. You might win a few hands but eventually the house always wins.
Lions over FALCONS
Now THIS is the team we all expected to see when we watched Atlanta in this season of Hard Knocks. A boring team that isn't very talented or well coached.
JETS over Bills
Because the Jets have to end their losing streak eventually and we all saw that the Bills aren't that great last week.
PATRIOTS over Bears
Why should Chicago get to have all their arguments in private? I think America deserves to see one of Jay Cutler's teammates punch him out on the sidelines after his next egregious pick.
BENGALS over Ravens
Every time the Vikings offense exasperates me the rest of the season, at least I can say they weren't as bad as Cincinnati in Week 7. I think the Bengals will bounce back and remember how to advance the football against their division rival this week.
Texans over TITANS
Hmm...the team that just self-destructed on Monday Night Football or the team that has allowed comebacks from Brian Hoyer and Colt McCoy in back-to-back weeks? A real Sophie's Choice here.
CHIEFS over Rams
It's good that the Royals didn't continue their impossible run and sweep the World Series. (Game 1 is finishing up as I'm writing this.) Because Game 4 is on Saturday night and the entire city would've been too hung over to attend a Chiefs game at noon the next day if the Royals swept.
Dolphins over JAGUARS
The way I have been picking Miami games this year, I should probably just congratulate the Jags on their second straight win now.
Seahawks over PANTHERS
OK Seattle, if you can't beat the leaders of the division that nobody wants to win this year, then we're really going to have to start worrying about you. One thing we never have to worry about is the Gratuitous Picture of the Week:
We might end up 7 and 9 / But in this division that's probably fine! (image via Pro Cheerleader Heaven)
Eagles over CARDINALS
Arizona is ranked 30th in offense and 20th in defense by Pro Football Focus. They're 5-1. QUIT MAKING PFF LOOK BAD AND JUST LOSE ALREADY!
BROWNS over Raiders
Although it would be such a Cleveland thing to lose to the last two remaining winless teams on consecutive weeks.
Colts over STEELERS
Troy Polamalu's career is definitely going to end with an injury suffered doing that stupid "fly over the offensive line while completely guessing on the snap count" move of his that he tried again on Monday. Troy, you're like a million years old. Knock it off.
SAINTS over Packers
I hate both teams, but can I please get a one-week reprieve from those incredibly smug Aaron Rodgers post-win press conferences? That shit-eating smirk he has on the podium, knowing that the media is going to completely lap up whatever he says...I just despise it. I HATE IT. Rodgers makes George Clooney seem humble.
COWBOYS over Redskins
My Survivor Pool pick of the week, now 6-1 on the season after Baltimore waxed Atlanta last week. Remember how we discounted Dallas before the season because their defense was going to suck so much? Well it's hard to suck when DeMarco Murray is carrying the ball while you're on the sidelines for 40 minutes a game. Of course with Washington's quarterback situation, maybe you don't want to slant the time of possession in your favor that much this week. Fewer opportunities for pick sixes.
Last week: 9-6
Season so far: 65-40-1